#45 Get Arrested for a Good Cause
Why #45 Get Arrested for a Good Cause
The thing about civil disobedience is, it involves disobedience. That scares me.
I’m driving through an evergreen forest. It’s early and I’m on my way to Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action on the Kitsap Peninsula. It’s been years since I printed out Mapquest directions, but I have, because where I’m going has been intentionally hidden away by the U.S. government. (Or so I’m told.) I grab my phone and record this voice memo:
“My fear in this case is about going against authority which is not easy for me. I don’t like the idea of breaking the law; of knowingly refusing to obey law enforcement. I grew up saying “Forgive us our trespasses” and today I’m going to trespass. I’ve read the ACLU website and Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience and I’m thinking about what it means to say no. I’m thinking about people who’ve said no against impossible odds, and come to violent ends.”
I arrive at Ground Zero and join an assortment of pilgrims wearing rain coats and handknits. Two weeks ago, I’d sheepishly told my sister-in-law, Mary Gleysteen, about my list, nervous that she might think it incredibly insubstantial. Mary lives her life with conviction. She has stepped over lines, climbed fences, and paddled in front of naval munitions ships. She’s been an advocate and a fighter and a nonviolent activist all her life.
But when I told her about #45, Get Arrested for a Good Cause, she replied: “What are you doing next Saturday?”
“Getting arrested?” I ventured.
Inside Ground Zero I find a hive of activity. I’d had a feeling that some kind of offering would be welcome, so I deliver a large Gladware of homemade cookies to the potluck altar and take a seat on an aluminum chair. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how this might work. We’ll gather up. Go to the submarine base. Get arrested. And go home. Check!
That’s not how it worked.
Instead, we begin with a series of presentations on nuclear proliferation and defeating militarism. We look at maps showing the destructive impact to Western Washington if even one warhead were to explode at Bangor. We consider the 2 billion lives at risk in the event of a nuclear famine.
And then we take a break to sing folk songs.
Next we break into two groups: those who will take part in the nonviolent action, and those thinking about risking arrest. We are told there will be a role for everybody: witnesses, legal observers, photographers, and peacekeepers. And those risking arrest. They say it this way every time: those risking arrest. It worries me, but I go with this group anyway. After all, I’m here to risk arrest.
There are just a handful of us. A battle-weary Obi Wan Kenobi type, tells us that he can’t really definitively tell us anything. Judges change, sentencing guidelines, police reactions. But usually – usually – they’ll give you a ticket the minute you step into the roadway. After you get your ticket, you can go back and they’ll take you down to the station to be fingerprinted. You won’t go to jail. You’ll just get a steeper ticket. Of course, if you step over the federal line, that’s a big deal. A Federal offense.
“Forgive me for this stupid, neurotic question,” I say, and I really do feel silly asking it, but I want to make sure it’s not a problem. “If I get arrested, I’ll still be able to be a chaperone on my kids’ field trips, right?”
“Oh, that’s not a stupid question at all” Obi Wan assures me. “Especially if you break federal law. It will show up on a background check.”
“But you should be able to explain to the school that you were exercising your civic duty.”
This is food for thought. The real food is being served downstairs. A variety of bulgar dishes, hummus, and smoothies. My cookies have been wiped out.
Finally, it’s time to go, and I’m itching to get it over with. But first we must recite the pledge of nonviolence. This may sound kind of crunchy, but when you’re about to get arrested, it’s actually very reassuring that everyone agrees to the rules. Nobody is going to do something stupid and make the police go wild, right? It’s a deal. I look around and hope we aren’t harboring any anarchists.
We walk to Bangor, to the steady beating drum of a Buddhist monk. As we walk quietly toward the base, I see a soldier behind a chain link fence. At his thigh is a German Shepherd, the dog’s ears perked as we pass. Wait, dogs? Nobody said anything about dogs. We get down to the base entrance and find a slew of police waiting for us. Ground Zero has told them that they’ll be at the base. The idea is not to surprise anybody. Ground Zero has put the civil in civil disobedience.
The police stand across the middle of the road, their hands behind their backs. I figure it’s a 1:1 ratio of cops to people planning on getting arrested, and I start picking out the one I want to have process my arrest. I notice the soldiers, and now I see that one of them has a major weapon. (An M16, I’m told later, but who knows? I hate guns, and the nonviolent crowd I’m hanging with is not necessarily weapons fluent.)
Ground Zero has a program planned that involves the death of the planet. Somebody with shop skills has constructed a very sturdy coffin for a large inflatable planet earth. There are candles and a boombox with a fugue in G-minor. Folks in black robes carry the coffin along the side of the road and we all place daisies on it. A robed man reads a long poem featuring the fawn and her doe enjoying the soft green grasses on a sunny morning when nuclear annihilation destroys everything.
During the ceremony I keep one eye on the police, with special attention on this one cop who looks particularly dyspeptic. I’m antsy as the fugue drones on, I’m edgy when the poem stretches from sad stanza to sad stanza. It’s rainy and these cops are looking irritated. I think about protests gone wrong. And I look at these cops shifting their weight from one foot to the other, and I say to myself:
Man, you really don’t like pissing off authority figures, do you?
I’m given a cue. It’s showtime. I take my place beside the coffin and carry (the beast) into the street. The cops move quickly, ordering us out of the roadway. As planned, we set the coffin down. A suggestion has been made that we leave the coffin in the street. The idea being that “they” killed the earth, so they can pick up the mess. But the suggestion didn’t really take. I mean, the cops didn’t kill the earth. Right? So when the grumpy cop starts Yosemite Sam yelling, telling us to “pick it up, NOW!” I bend right over and grab my handle. There’s dissention while some pall bearers hesitate and others start to walk away. But the whole time I’m waiting to pick up the damn coffin. And I’m looking at the cops as if to say “I’m trying to obey you. Really I am.” Am I proud of this part? No. I was weak. But really, why should the cops throw their backs out? Eventually, we (the protestors) move the coffin and we are finally, officially, arrested.
The police order us to line up and get out our ID’s. Those not risking arrest sing We Shall Overcome. One protestor offers a daisy to a cop who turns him down, kind of rudely. But the fourth time the protestor offers the cop a daisy I think, “Okay protestor, dude. Now you’re being kinda rude, and you’re kinda asking for trouble.” The cops are keyed up. I’m not sure what they’re afraid of. I look back at the Ground Zero group: aging hippies in rain coats and Buddhist monks singing folk songs. I mean, calm down, officers.
When it’s my turn, they take my ID and print me out a ticket. I actually expect the cop to hand it over and say something like, “You were an excellent protestor today, Ms. Elder. It was a pleasure arresting you.” But instead he walks me to the middle of the roadway and growls. “If you cross the line again, you will go to jail.” It sounds like a promise. I think about the carpools I need to drive next week and the PE class I teach on Wednesdays. I fold my ticket and think with a pang about the end of my sterling record. I can’t wait to get out of the rain and away from the German Shepherd.
But a few hours later Mary and I go to the movie, Selma with the rest of the family and I’m super glad that my record isn’t sterling. Because what good is a voice if you never use it? I have a mitigation hearing in March, and already I’m thinking about what I want to say to the judge.
Update: 24 March 2015
Today I had my court hearing on this arrest. Read my statement below or watch me deliver the statement.
WSP 5Z0114389, Mary Elder
Kitsap District Court, Port Orchard WA
23 March 2015
On the 17th of January I was arrested for joining a Ground Zero protest against nuclear weapons at Bangor Naval Base. I believe it is incumbent upon this community to support a civil discourse that asks the essential question: Are we okay with the largest concentration of nuclear warheads in the world sitting just 20 miles from this courtroom? And if we’re not, what are we going to do about it?
Your honor, I am 50 years old, and this is my first arrest. Considering that I was born the same year as the march in Selma, that I was in college during the Anti-Apartheid movement, and that I have lived my entire life aware of the threat of environmental and nuclear disaster, it’s pretty embarrassing that only now, at my age, have I used my voice in this way.
It is clear to me that some issues require civil disobedience. If we could rely on the normal channels of congressional, military and legal process to end the nuclear arms race, it would be over by now. This community is like so many others: it’s bread is buttered by the military industrial complex, making it easy to ignore Bangor’s perilous destructive threat sitting just beyond the trees. But while most are watching Seahawks games, a few people have been gathering, for many years, at Ground Zero. They stand in the rain and sing “We Shall Overcome” and ask the uncomfortable question: If global destruction isn’t okay, what are we going to do to stop it? Your honor, I contend that that Ground Zero protestors are part of the moral fabric of this community, and that without this voice of dissent, we live in a faulty democracy. The day I was arrested, a Ground Zero presenter said, “We thank the Navy for keeping [these warheads] safe until we can do the citizens’ work [to eliminate them].
Breaking the law is not in my nature, but protesting peacefully at Bangor taught me that it should be. I wish to close by reminding this court that mitigation makes a statement too: that voices like mine, and like the tireless individuals at Ground Zero are crucial in this community, and should be heard.
P.S. You can find me, Facing 50 Fears on Facebook
© Mary Elder, 2015. All Rights Reserved.